Pandemic-era stigma has cost Asian restaurants $7.4 billion in lost revenue, according to new study

Stigma against Chinese cuisine in the first year of the pandemic cost Asian restaurants in the United States an estimated $7.4 billion in lost revenue in 2020, according to a recent study.

In a year in which tens of thousands of restaurants have closed and many have barely left, the study – published online last week in the journal Nature Human Behavior – reported that Asian restaurants across the country lost 18, 4% more traffic than other restaurants in 2020.

Major reports of anti-Asian racism, from harassment to outright violence, have flooded the country in the years following the outbreak of the pandemic. Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition that formed in response, recorded nearly 11,500 such incidents from March 2020 to March 2022.

But the goal of this study, in addition to determine “The cost of anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to researchers at Boston College, the University of Michigan and Microsoft Research, has been to highlight less obvious instances of anti-Asian discrimination despite the significant economic impact.

“When you have something like people choosing not to eat at a Chinese restaurant, it’s something that’s much more subtle and under the surface, but it’s also much more common,” said co-author Masha Krupenkin, assistant professor of political science at the Boston College.

Pedestrians walk past Peach Farm in Boston's Chinatown on Jan. 15, 2021. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images file)

Pedestrians walk past Peach Farm in Boston’s Chinatown on Jan. 15, 2021. (Erin Clark/Boston Globe via Getty Images file)

Justin Lipsky, the director of public policy at the Chinese Community Center of Minnesota, said he has seen these stats play out in his area. In the months since the pandemic began in March 2020, Chinese American restaurants in the Twin Cities area have faced hateful comments on social media for broken storefronts and other forms of vandalism.

He said the $7.4 billion figure isn’t surprising, especially when you factor in composite factors like ingrained, racist stereotypes that Chinese food is cheap or unclean. These perceptions made it even harder for these restaurants to bounce back when inflation skyrocketed, forcing them to hike menu prices.

“When you go to, say, an Italian restaurant and they raise their prices, people are more inclined to be willing to pay the higher price. But when you walk into a smaller Chinese place, people are less likely to understand that, because that’s just what the Chinese food association is in a lot of people’s minds,” Lipsky said. “So there’s this fusion of all these problems that have brought particular difficulties to AAPI restaurants, and also to Chinese restaurants in particular”.

The research team analyzed search terms to find the prevalence of negative attitudes towards China and people of Chinese descent, then looked at consumers’ mobile location data to determine the actual impact on restaurants. Additional survey data has further illuminated anecdotal attitudes towards Chinese food.

What was particularly surprising to Krupenkin, however, was that Asian restaurants that weren’t Chinese experienced even greater traffic declines than Chinese restaurants. After investigating this fallout of consumer discrimination, his team found that many people simply couldn’t tell the difference between different Asian cuisines.

“We actually did a kind of similar survey where we asked people to label restaurants’ ethnicity by their name,” she said, “and you would have people who, for example, would mislabel ‘Tokyo Garden.’ like Chinese”.

These models align with multiple surveys conducted by researchers to assess consumer guilt. When asking respondents which racial or ethnic group they believed was “most responsible for introducing COVID-19” into the country, “Asians” and “Chinese” were the most common responses among those who did not choose “No racial or ethnic is responsible.”

The attribution of blame against people of Chinese ethnicity is therefore coupled with two trends the study found: that survey respondents consistently overestimated the portion of Asian Americans who are Chinese, and that respondents who overestimated the most also tended to believe that Chinese food had a higher risk of contracting Covid-19.

Compared to the four years before the pandemic, anti-China web searches have also increased after the pandemic, including phrases that have no relation to Covid-19, such as searches linking China to communism or long-standing stereotypes about the people and about Chinese culture.

Searches for “Chinese eat bats” and “Chinese eat dogs” experienced similar spikes after the United States issued its declaration of a national emergency in mid-March 2020. While the first search (“bats”) was probably driven by media and political rhetoric at the time, the study noted, the latter (“dogs”) had no ties to the Covid-19 discourse.

One of the most important drivers of effects such as anti-Asian discrimination, Krupenkin noted, is the relationship between bias and human behavior. The report finds that the biggest traffic drops for Asian restaurants occurred in zipcodes that voted most heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, who as president at the start of the pandemic blamed China and continually labeled Covid -19 as the “Chinese virus”. “

“People tend to strongly follow the cues of their party leaders,” he said. “So Trump, leading by example and calling Covid ‘the China virus’ and really blaming China, I think, was one of the key drivers of the effects we’ve seen, especially among Republicans.”

Political leaders throughout history have repeatedly stoked the flames of xenophobic scapegoating in public health crises, for example by blaming Jewish immigrants for tuberculosis or African immigrants for Ebola.

While this new report aimed to specifically quantify the economic impact of pandemic-era racism against Asian American communities, Krupenkin said, future research could examine whether and how this type of stigma could arise even without harmful messages from part of public officials.

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